I’ve slowly come around to the fact that my mother was very manipulative and insistent in her messages to her children about measuring up to others. In the past, if you asked me what I thought of my mother, I would have given you a glowing review. Now, I’m realizing that she really did a number on me. Whether or not it was on purpose is a relevant followup question but would produce a very long and complicated answer. For now, let’s stick with the “Why can’t my kids?” mantra.
My mother has always felt ill-at-ease around others who speak highly of their own children. In some cases, the praise they are giving is self promotional and meant to be competitive; while in others children who DO achieve at an extremely high level are worthy of any accolades they receive. In particular, my Mom reacts strongly when relatives call to chat. As with any family oriented conversation, parents talk about their kids. A couple of my cousins have made some remarkable achievements in their lives. Accordingly, my aunts and uncles like to remind my mother whose children are ruling the roost. Of course, my Mom fires back with a list of the good things her children are doing.
In any other family this would be innocent chatter between people who ultimately care about each other and love their children. In my family, however, my Mom takes away a sense of inferiority. Naturally, the obvious outlet for alleviating this feeling of dismay is living vicariously through her own children, pushing them to achieve something she can brag about. Hence, when I was growing up, I constantly heard “Why can’t my kids…?” out of my mother’s mouth. As a youth I had no idea how this would affect me for years to come.
When I was in second grade, my Mom started me on piano lessons. Additionally, I was expected to excel at school. Then, in third grade, I started playing the trumpet, too. OK, that’s what happens to most kids: parents expose their children to different activities in hopes that one will “stick” and provide their child with a healthy outlet for socialization in a positive environment. Normal parents don’t worry about the result as much as they worry about the growth of their children. It doesn’t matter if Junior becomes an astronaut, it just matters that Junior becomes a happy, healthy, independent adult. My Mom would always snicker when a parent pulled their child out of an activity and gave them something else to do. To her, this was a sign of weakness opposed to good parenting.
As time progressed from elementary school into middle school, my Mom made it clear that academic achievement was a high priority. Any time I came home with good grades, I received a positive, pride-filled response from my Mom. If I slipped one quarter or didn’t get the book award for English, she used negative motivation to push me forward. She hated it when another parent boasted about their child making the honor roll, becoming captain of the football team, or winning a music competition. She would constantly say “I want MY kids to do that” or “Why can’t my kids do that?”.
In High School, things became even more serious. My father bought into my Mom’s selfish mode of thought and would often say things like, “I’m tired of seeing Joe Smith bouncing around on stage, why don’t YOU get up there?” These types of comments were dangerous elements in my mind that welded into of a caustic mix of self hatred and false ego. How was I supposed to feel good about myself if my own family only handed out love and nurture based on some sort of achievement? Admittedly, when I went full bore my Junior and Senior year in High School, I pitted myself against my classmates in an imaginary battle that I reassessed each time grades came in, a sports season finished, or a school concert was heard. If I was the leader, I felt good. If I wasn’t, I felt horrible. Naturally, even though my classmates had no idea I was waging war with them in my mind, it drove a wedge between me and important High School social opportunities.
One day my Mom was driving me back up to High School so I could attend after school rehearsal. Somehow we got on the topic of dating amid a competitive preparatory academic environment. I mentioned that a couple of the girls at the top of the class were actively dating, enjoying a typical High School experience. Instead of encouraging me to reach out and socialize with others, she said, “Well…you’re not into dating right now, you have your schoolwork to do”…AND my trumpet to practice…AND high school track and field career…AND my weekend job on Saturday night that was mandated by both my parents, effectively removing me from any sort of weekend social opportunities that most teenagers experience. No, I wasn’t into dating at all.
The problem with raising children this way is that they eventually tie their self worth to exogenous factors. This, coupled with limited High School social experiences creates a setup for catastrophic self implosion. As any regular reader of this blog will know, my BPD was diagnosed in college after a horrific explosion resulting from a social and personal failure. I also went into a horrible malaise for years afterwards. If your child doesn’t know how to socialize with others in a non-competitive way, they will self destruct in college, where the social scene is largely based on hanging out informally with peers and dorm mates. This is in stark contrast to High School, where most kids come home and have a family – for better or for worse – as their safety net. Once that safe environment is removed, however, life can take a drastic turn for the worse.
Every once in a while, I find myself asking “Why can’t I do what so and so is doing?”; “What can’t I make money like Jones?”; “Why can’t I feel good about myself like others?”. The response to these questions is hard wired in my mind: achieve and succeed and you will be loved. The fact is, when you hit 30, what you did in High School matters little to what you’re doing in the present. Yes, there are some exceptions to this rule, especially if you have chosen an existence built around successive academic achievement through High School, College, and Graduate School. That aside, the fact that you earned an “A” in Mr. Smith’s 10th grade English class is irrelevant: there are bills that have to be paid, personal needs that must be met, and a life independent of your parents to live.
“Why can’t I?” can be a toxic question to constantly ask yourself, especially if you have low self esteem or mental illness. Don’t worry about doing what someone else is doing, even if your whole childhood was built around parental reinforcement of achievement.
Remember, it’s your life to live, and you only get one shot at it. There’s something to be said for stopping and smelling the roses even if your next door neighbor’s kid is playing in the local symphony orchestra and getting straight As. In twenty years, none of that will matter. What will matter is how you feel about yourself and what truly makes you happy.